The second in a series of posts about what we all – regardless of location, curriculum and age level – can learn from the philosophy, practices and people of Reggio Emilia.
There is a powerful certainty that underlies everything the educators in Reggio Emilia do and say. There is an incredible clarity of purpose behind all actions, all words and all decisions. This clarity is unifying, and gives educators strength as they work together to teach in a way that is actually much more difficult than traditional, teach-from-the-box or from-the-planner approaches. This clarity makes it very easy to help new parents understand their approach, their methods, their beliefs about the capacities of children and the parenting styles that are compatible with these beliefs.
The source of this sense of purpose is easily identifiable when the history of the Reggio Emilia approach to education is explained and illustrated to you. It can be traced back to the emergence from the horrors of World War II and the determination of a group of villagers that schooling, for their children and future generations, must have the rights of children at its epicentre. Over the years, this conviction remains just as strong. But, it has also expanded into additional beliefs about the competence of children and the quality of education that they deserve.
There are no grey areas in this, no confusion and certainly no fluffiness.
The schools you and I work in, though, are often prone to such weaknesses – philosophical gaps, indecisiveness and differing practices. We believe we are unified by the fact that we work at, for example, an IB school. Yet, even then, we find ourselves at odds with our colleagues, we even work with colleagues who don’t really believe in what they’re doing, and therefore don’t really do it – whatever it is (something we also struggle to reach a genuine consensus about!). These inconsistencies are sources of weakness – they hold us back in terms of what we are able to do with and for children – but they also make it too easy for parents to pick holes in what we do. We are unable to give parents real explanations because we may not really be sure of what we’re doing, or what we do may differ so much from person to person, from grade level to grade level, from year to year that any explanation may simply be untrue.
Beyond this, though, is the sense that many of our schools lack any kind of genuine ethical stance or purpose beyond teaching some kids of some people who can pay us to teach their kids. This is something that has bothered me for some time as I look around at the world and question the impact of education on society. I think its high time our schools traced back their origins to seek some kind of moral purpose and, if there isn’t one, engage with the whole community to develop one. A real one. Not a collection of fluffy throw-away sentiments in a mission statement.
Perhaps these questions might help:
- In what ways are we, and the surrounding community, better because of the existence of our school?
- What are our shared beliefs about life and what we hope for the future?
- How much of what happens inside the walls of our school is affected by what happens outside the walls of our school?
- What do we hope the impact of our school will be in 50 years time?
Bill and Ochan Powell (rest in peace, Bill) always say, above all else, “know your students”.
The written curriculum in your school is the students’ curriculum.
Your curriculum is the students.
They are learning about all the things expressed in their curriculum (and hopefully much more!).
You are learning about them.
Understanding this will help you make the shift from “deliverer of content” to a facilitator of learning, a designer of learning experiences and a partner for each of your students as they learn and as they navigate their curriculum. Each day, you will arrive at work full of curiosity, poised and ready to:
- get to know your students better
- inquire about them
- research into them
- get a sense of who each of them is in the context of learning taking place at the time
- discover what motivates them
- find out what interests and inspires them
- help them develop their own plans for learning
- get a sense of what they can do and what skills they may develop next
- learn about how they think
- try a wide variety of strategies to do all of the above
- never give up…
It is a very exciting moment when PYP Teachers realise they are inquirers who are constantly seeking, gathering and using data (in it’s most sophisticated and powerful forms) about their students.
It is this realisation that sets apart genuine PYP Teachers from those who simply work in a PYP school, for the two are vastly different.
Recently, Kelli and I were talking about why teaching can be so exhausting. She used the analogy of Salmon swimming upstream to illustrate how we are so often doing what we do in the face of so many other contradictory and conflicting forces.
These forces may sometimes be policies and expectations put in place by governments and education departments based on decisions which are often made by people with little or no educational background apart from the fact that they went to school. In many cases, these policies and expectations are in complete conflict with what educators know to be true about children and learning. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.
In other cases (or if you’re unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be policies and expectations that are put in place by school boards or leadership teams. Many school boards are composed of people who have little or no educational background apart from the fact they went to school. And many leadership teams consist of educators so long out of the classroom and so distanced from the realities of day-to-day teaching that they are referring to how things were, or should have been, 20 or 30 years ago. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.
In other cases (or if you’re really unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be the patterns of behaviour and trends that exist around you all in everyday life outside school. Students may be consistently exposed to things that go against everything you hope to be instilling in them while they are with you, such as vast differences between rich and poor, an abusive class system, the systematic destruction of the environment, institutionalised racism, corrupt officials and police, blatant consumerism and greed and disregard for human life. And so some teachers try to get their students involved in doing something about these problems, and this is great. But, all too often the overwhelming feeling that they’re only scratching the surface burns people out or the transient nature of many international schools means projects are not sustained. And so, teachers and students do what they do inside a sort of bubble of safety, security and sanitisation while still trying to open their students’ eyes to reality.
In other cases (or if you’re really, really unlucky) the forces may be the parents and what they believe about parenting. Teachers may be consistently trying to reverse the damaging effects of different parenting styles, such as children who have “learned helplessness”, children who are overprotected, children who are under too much pressure to be academically successful, children who are over-scheduled, children who are unable to relax without a screen in front of them, children who are not getting enough sleep, children who eat a damaging diet, children who are being medicated and children who are being brought up with worrying political and ethical beliefs. And so, teachers do what they do in the hope that their 8 hours or so each day with these children can, in some way counteract what is happening at home and give them a refuge, increase their confidence and self-esteem, reveal different perspectives to them and, perhaps most importantly, help them learn how to figure things out for themselves.
In other cases (or if you’re really, really, really unlucky) the forces may be the what the parents believe is, or should be, a good education. Many parents’ only point of reference about education is their own experience. Some of the more enlightened parents look back at aspects of their education and hope, more than anything else, that their children don’t have to “go through that”. Many, though, hark back to their education with rose-tinted glasses and put pressure on modern teachers to replicate those practices despite the fact that pedagogical research, as well as the world itself, has moved on since then. And so, teachers are charged with the responsibility of not only educating children but also educating parents about how they are educating their children!
The Salmon swimming upstream is a great analogy for what it’s like to be a teacher. At least, a teacher who is determined to stay up-to-date with pedagogical research and contemporary practice, who is determined to teach the child and not just the content, who is determined to be part of creating generations of young people who can give themselves and the next generation a better existence and who is determined to make the most of the privilege that it is to have such a direct impact on the lives of so many people. If not, I guess they’re just swimming along with the current… which is, of course, much easier, much less energy-sapping and involves a lot less thought!
Whenever something bad has happened in the early years section of any of the schools I have worked in, I have always thought about this clip. Those unfortunate soldiers at the frontline of war who sacrificed themselves to protect the others, further back, further from the danger.
This is a comparison I have been making, mentally, for many years… probably since my wife became an early years teacher in a fee-paying international school. You see, what we have to realise and remember about early years teachers is that:
- they are the most at risk of scrutiny by parents, sometimes being peered at through windows and even, in some cases, filmed while they try and do their job
- they are the most at risk of emotional, irrational and often inappropriate outbursts by parents
- they are the ones who have to immediately justify their practices to parents who understand little or nothing about a contemporary education
- they are the ones most underestimated by other teachers and people in leadership positions
- they are the ones who do a thousand invisible things every day only to be questioned about one of them
- they are the ones who deal with faeces, urine, vomit, snot, tears, physical violence and tantrums with unconditional love and patience
- they are the ones who are treated like subservients because it’s often the first year or two that parents have paid for the “service” of education
- they are the ones who have to counteract poor parenting decisions in their purest form
So, next time you see an early years teacher… give them a smile.
They’re at work again, making things just that little bit easier for teachers of every subsequent grade level. They’re at work again, because despite all of the harsh realities in my list above, they absolutely love their jobs and wholeheartedly believe in what they do.
A parent recently asked me if I felt her children would struggle when returning to a more conservative model of education after several years in a PYP school… and an innovative PYP school at that.
She was mainly thinking about whether or not they would have fallen behind academically in the traditional subject areas as the system in her country, like in most of them, is very content-specific. I said that they may find there are things that they haven’t learned… of course! However, I told her, after several years in the PYP they will have the ability to access that information as they will be skilled in the “art of learning”. I reassured her that what they have learned, or haven’t learned, should not present them with insurmountable problems.
What they might struggle with, I said, is being expected to go backwards in terms of how they learn. Being put back into a traditional classroom set-up in which all students sit at tables all day, sometimes in rows. Being put back into a traditional teacher-student authority relationship. Being put back into situations where all students are doing the same thing, the same way at the same time. Being put back into didactic, predetermined contexts for learning. Being put back into a place where only a few forms of expression are valued. These are all things they might struggle with. These are all things that many children who leave PYP schools and go back to state systems struggle with.
The metaphor of a genie in a bottle sprung to mind as I was talking. We laughed about how the PYP has released the inner genie in her children, and children like them, and how it might be very difficult or even impossible to put the genie back into the bottle!
But, do we really want to?
Header image from here
One thing that bothers me about international schools is the fear of taking a strong stance on any sort of issues. We persistently flap about in the no-man’s land of opinion, belief and – most worryingly – ethics. We have wonderful mission statements, visions, learner profiles, principles, codes of conduct etc… ad infinitum… but we don’t take a stance on anything that really matters.
Imagine working at a school that explicitly took sides against one, a few or all of these things that exist outside and/or inside the walls of most of our schools:
- massive gaps between the rich and the poor
- environmental destruction
- waste and the production of rubbish
- maltreatment of refugees
Imagine a school that refused to accept the children of parents who were in the country for dubious or destructive purposes – industries that caused pollution of the destruction of the environment, for example. Or a school that refused to accept the children of powerful local “dignitaries” or owners of the construction companies that are turning many of the cities we work in into nightmarish visions of “progress”. Or a school that refused to accept the citizens of countries waging wars on foreign soil. Or a school that insisted on paying its local staff decent wages. Or a school that would not tolerate seeing people living in distressing circumstances within a certain radius of its premises. Or a school that gave disadvantaged local people scholarships or new career opportunities.
Or, basically, a school that does more good than harm… and is fiercely proud of that fact. Is that how we can make sure our schools are “human”?
We have to remember to go against our learned instincts.
My learned instinct is to hold my children back. We’re walking along a footpath in Cheshire, in the UK, beautiful fresh stream rushing across ancient stones. Children utterly excited to be there… and they want to run ahead, and my learned instinct, my new instinct that I’ve got from life, somehow, by mistake, is to hold them back. My first response is “no… we’re not here to run”.
Well, guess what, Daddy… you’re wrong.
These kids are here to run. And there’s no reason to hold them back.
It’s a lot like learning. We’ve just got to let them go, just run. And, I’m standing here now watching them. It’s raining, they’re full of zest. They’re excited by the space, the freedom, the flowers and by the fact that they can just run.
Yes, they make a few mistakes, get stung by nettles, make their shoes filthy in mud. But they are learning, first hand, from and about the environment. They will not forget nettles. They will identify the squelchy, marshy patches of land and – maybe – avoid them next time!
I created this context – in my role as “teacher” – by bringing them to this place. I knew it was important, special and rich with opportunities to discover. But then I have to let them be free within the context, only that way will genuine questions emerge from them, and they did:
“Why is the water and the rocks orange?”
“Why are the cows lying down?”
“Where does the water come from?”
“Why is there wool on the branches of that fallen tree?”
“Who does this land belong to?”
“Why are people allowed to walk through here?”
“Where does that path go?”
“What is making that sound?”
“Who made that rope swing over the river?”
And then, of course, many attempts at holding on to the piece of wood hanging from a tree and swinging out over the water until they had all had many successful goes!
Instead of being a controlled walk, with adults determining the path and pointing out the things they thought should be of interest or worthy of learning about (i.e. the ones we had the answers to!), it becomes a child-driven walk, a haphazard route, endless questions – many unanswered – unpredicted experiences, private thoughts and moments of personal growth and self-actualization that we – the parents – are not even aware of.